Voice of the Nation
“I guess in the end, all you can really do is talk about stuff, and it takes voices with the maxed out to understand what most of us just whisper.”
Ian Kerner, Author
Call me Plantman
How many nights must I awake to strangers’ music? Kid outside my window screamed poems into a microphone plugged into to a squat amp he dragged behind him on a wagon. Launched his dithyrambs against the City. Cannonades of sing-song bass.
Josh razed Jericho with jingles.
Turn on your radio and tune in The VOICE of the Nation.
I tried to reach The VOICE myself. Dialed for hours but the line was jammed. WSOS after midnight The VOICE beseeched and bombarded by the Sleepless of the Nation. Clearly I wouldn’t make the connection, but should that prohibit me from speaking?
Micro-cassette recorder on my bookshelf. Little block of gizmo I’d purchased during my student days to record the lectures of great men. The batteries were fresh, for I consulted it often.
I raised the volume of the radio.
The VOICE said to the Sleepless of the Nation: “Voices that command, command. I overwhelm you with my immanence if I’m not real who is? My words redeem you, you can’t penetrate my words I pump them into you like bullets you don’t hear them high frequency like dog whistles raise primordial spooks to haunt your creepy skulls do what I dream you to do, and THEN you will be loved. You harden in pockets of darkness like old gum, oh shadows, you are doubts articulated you are puppets.”
I said to the recorder: “Call me Plantman. I nurture gardens in the sky, bring water, fertilizer and impeccable grooming to the City’s indoor flora.
“The workers anticipate my coming. Cramped in stalls and cubicles at nose-pinching altitudes, hunched over keyboards, the workers must turn from their radioactive sentences once-in-a-while and witness green.”
I’m an indoor landscaper, a horticultural technician.
Brown is Fading
A caller identified himself as Brown, author of Wild Card. The VOICE commanded him to speak.
Brown said: “My book is a mirror in which each reader sees his own story therefore each reader is writing while reading. I worked on it for seven years.”
The VOICE said: “Yeah, so?”
Brown said: “So I awoke one morning and found myself STILL unknown… writers trying to repossess lost time… type in darkness, thousands of them, tippety-tap-tap-tap… trying to define the Nation, it is beyond them, they are alone and frightened…”
The VOICE said: “I’m losing you, Brown. You’re fading. “
Brown said: “…the lights out there, the bright lights must be humanized, my language will humanize the lights…the page is a dead land…still water…so many sentences secreted hourly, the Nation is immense…the writers are jostled in the street, they must create space for themselves…they colonize the page with words…”
The VOICE said: Brown Brown Brown is fading…fading…fading…. Poof.”
Over a hundred horticultural technicians work for Topiary Techniques. It is the largest indoor landscaping company in the city. Clients of Topiary Techniques range from small businesses to major corporations. There can be anywhere from five to one-hundred and fifty plants on a site and the technician on whose route that site is situated is responsible for every damn one of them.
It is the technician’s mission to keep the flora on his route alive and young. When a plant dies or becomes unsightly, the client is entitled to a replacement. The technician must fill out a form in triplicate and hand-deliver it to the Dispatcher, who must sign it and send it to the men in the nursery, who release the replacement to the Delivery men, who place the new plant on a Topiary Techniques delivery truck and ferry it to its new home. All this costs time and money, for the company supplies replacements gratis. Every client is entitled to unlimited replacements so long as a) the moribund plant was originally purchased from Topiary Techniques and b) the Topiary Techniques maintenance staff –we technicians– are retained for weekly visits to the site. The client corporation is entitled to have healthy green life always on its premises and nary an old brown leaf or jaundiced stem.
The VOICE said: “What heart pounds in the gut of the Nation, waiting to be born? I am Vesuvius I am the core, I am the beast crouched, clawing at the womb: I thrum I resonate I’m hemorrhaging! Bathe in my syllables I devastate you.”
I said to the recorder: “Plantman ascends towering mausoleums to make the concrete bloom.”
Bigger Than Johnny Apple seed
A memo circulated. Company accountants claimed Topiary Techniques had lost $250,000 over the last quarter because of excessive replacements. The memo broached certain economic verities – loss of benefits, salary cuts, layoffs – if things didn’t shape up.
“Inspectors will follow you on your routes. They’ll test the soil for moisture content. They’ll scrutinize every leaf…”
We were costing the company a lot of green.
“Don’t let life slip through your fingers,” the memo admonished.
I said to the recorder: ” I’m practically a folk hero. Bigger than Johnny Apple Seed. Imagine those corporate hives if nothing grew. If all they saw or smelled was carpet and Formica. They’d go mad mad mad insane. Plantman keeps their plants alive. Their pothos and aboricolum; their corn plants, silver leafs, and marginata; their spathyfilum, spider plants and ficus. Because of my efforts workers hundreds of feet above the earth can sit under the shade of a potted fig tree and discuss favorite television shows or whisper secrets. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The fig tree knows…and it tells Plantman. “
Where Life Is
I threw on a pair of jeans, shut off the big radio; clipped a transistor and the tape recorder to my belt; went up to pace the roof under an idiotic moon. My building is seven stories high. I see things. Even at that late hour the stacks and stacks of lighted windows teased with possibilities. The sky was irrelevant; the stars lacked wattage. Out in the city was the core, where life is. Out there was the center of the world.
Many of the City’s Sleepless are awake by choice. The night is their milieu. I imagined rooms full of bodies cosmeticized by colored lights and artificial fog, secret corridors of women, drinks, and music. Places where people gathered to be better than human.
“There are ten million lives in the City and I’m not living any one of them,” I said into the machine, though I hadn’t turned it on.
Earn Bliss of Stasis Pee-pee Two Dollar
The subway was packed. I feared sticking people with the protruding nozzle of my bucket, which tended to mimic the barrel of a gun. A frail old man lugged his business into the car. In an unidentifiable accent he hawked dolls and imitation cellular phones out of a paper shopping bag.
“Ring ring. Phone three dollar. Wee wee. Pee-pee two dollar.”
When the vendor squeezed the buttocks of the Pee-pee, a boy-shaped figurine with knickers rolled down to its knees, water jetted from its stubby zhlong. Accidents happen: the Pee-pee over shot its mark, soaking the tie and newspaper of a stranger. The stranger struck the vendor and the air-borne Pee-pee knocked the coffee from a woman’s hand. The woman kicked the vendor’s bag reflexively as the stranger pummeled the old man to the floor.
The shopping bag bled phones and dolls. Passengers stomped on them like eggs. The vendor pressed a phone to each gray cheek and wept.
Was this a job for Plantman? Avenge the poor fool, who was probably peddling without a license? No. Plantman’s energies are reserved solely for the maintenance of flora.
I looked up and beyond the wretched scene, above the newspapers and sunglasses and wet heads, to an advertisement for a cologne called “Earn.”
The poster featured a wedding party in the park. Tree-lined field and in the offing sleek gray-black towers of the City like titanic men in suits. All the wedding guests were beautiful people in their twenties. Casual chic. Successful crowd not dressed for ceremony. A mock-dangerous band played silent pop. Everything shot in black and white except the bride and groom. She: barefoot in white gauze – translucent frock; artfully wild hair. He: torn jeans, motorcycle boots; a black blazer and top hat. They ran toward each other, arms outstretched, ecstatic. Caught in time a few feet from embrace; equidistant from the center.
The entire scene was superimposed over a curvaceous bottle of cologne. The caption read, “EARN the moment. Forever. ” Was this cologne designed for men or women? The advertisement was ingeniously ambiguous.
Often during working life, traveling my route, I turn from the panicked masses and observe advertisements on the sides of passing buses, on billboards, in magazines forming inadvertent collages in kiosks. The advertisements feature models in scenarios of work, courtship, celebration, the pursuit of death in powerful machines. But really they’re doing nothing, the models, but looking beautiful and still and firmly planted in the center of the world.
The most beautiful thing imaginable is to do nothing. To attain the bliss of stasis you must make time stop directly where you stand. That is the center of the world. But a horticultural technician is always doing. To foster growth is to provoke decay. Always it is a struggle against replacement.
I said: “Plantman was underground, preparing to ascend. Trains roared past like dragons.”
Bartleby or Not To Be
Bartleby at the Accounting Firm murdered a ficus. I walked into his office to find stems and leaves and dirt mashed into the carpet. Two jagged branches lay like antlers on his desk.
“I can’t replace this,” I said firmly. “It’s not in the contract.”
“They’re fake,” he said. “You’ve been in here fifty, sixty times, Plantman, and still you haven’t noticed.”
I sniffed a leaf.
“Not the trees, you ass. The loved ones.”
On his desk were photographs of an elderly couple, a large clan at a barbecue, a family of four: mother, father, daughter, son. The father wasn’t Bartleby. Bartleby, in fact, did not appear in any of the pix.
“They came with the frames. They’re artificial kin,” he said. “Everyone needs a home to come to work to. I grow so tired of your stupid fig trees.”
“Ficus,” I said. “It’s not a fig tree, it’s a ficus. Well, same thing, I imagine…”
“What have we learned today?” he asked.
I couldn’t say.
“He knows nothing.”
A caller who identified himself as “the Photographer” said: “For years I traveled the Nation. I photographed everything. Great men and events as well as the desultory dramas of common lives. The cities and their artifacts, the young who are no longer young, everything that fades I captured. Now I am old and confined to my studio. My walls are covered with images of the Nation, every centimeter is dense with faces and machines. The Nation, c’est moi. It occurs to me: the Photographer did not record the Nation, he created it. The Nation was conceived in my camera and born out of my darkroom like Athena from the head of Zeus.”
The VOICE said: “Nonsense. You didn’t create ME. You don’t even know what The VOICE looks like. I could be anyone, even YOU.
The Photographer said: “But I have seen the Nation, it is HERE. Right here. In my apartment. Studio. Whatever.”
The VOICE said: “Listen to me: once I had a bellyache I had a bellyache I dreamed the Nation. Go to sleep, Photographer. You are not well.”
Plantman Theme Song
Mouthing an imaginary Jew’s harp, I sang the Plantman theme song to the stars:
“Boing boing a-boing boing boing boing Boing, boing a-boing boing boing bong Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Plantman has his scissors and bucket Plantman waters all that’s green Folks say Plantman lives in Nantucket Cause after five he’s never seen. Boing boing a-boing boing boing boing Boing boing a-boing boing boing boing.”
Death’s Rococo Graffiti
Opposite my building, across the park, is the Home for Adults. They let the old people out into the park twice a day, morning and evening.
The old people are guarded from the general population. But I get close enough to study the complex etchings on their faces – Death’s Rococo graffiti – and to listen. The old people are vague, obsessed with their own mismanaged lives. They offer fragments about jobs blown, lovers lost, festering emotional wounds.
They speak of objects. Things they’d touched. People caressed who no longer exist.
The old people are ghost radios. They teach me nothing.
The guards flash me nasty looks for venturing so close. They have their hands full, keeping teenage boys from beating the old people to death.
Children play in the park. Their mothers prevent them from bothering the old people and god forbid contracting Time.
The VOICE said, “Oh hollow notions you are beer cans you are filter less I reify you.”
I said to the recorder: “In a canvass bag marked with the emblem of Topiary Techniques, Plantman carries the tools of his trade: one four-gallon watering can, (commonly referred to as a ‘bucket.’); one pair of stainless steel scissors for trimming and shaping; one feather-duster for brushing dust motes, skin particles, nail-clippings and other impurities from the leaves; fertilizer; insecticide; and various other necessities.
“Plantman has enemies: mealy bug, spider mite, scales, and all manner of diseases and insects that attack the vegetation of the city. He doesn’t hesitate to poison. With his enemies he is ruthless.
“The green denizens of the City love him.”
The Missing Girl
A caller who identified herself as “the Missing Girl” said: “You know who I am. Years ago my face graced the covers of the Nation’s magazines. I was the Missing Girl, poster child for the Nation’s lost children. Had I been abducted, killed? You never knew. I’ve been around. But never where I was supposed to be. Recently I traveled with my husband – I’m married now; my husband was a pilot in the war; he dropped bombs on the Nation’s enemies, many of whom happened to be children, missing now and never to be found, but I forgive him – to the Museum of Ghosts.
“There was an exhibit titled, ‘Before She Was Missed.’ They’d transplanted my old room like London Bridge, moved all my possessions from the old house to this museum in the middle of the Nation. They put on a skit for the visitors with a teenage actress playing the young me. A ten-minute domestic drama of no account really, but interesting in its implications. My parents, older but vital still, played themselves.
“‘Sometimes I feel her presence,’ my mother sobbed. ‘She touches me but I can’t see her.’
“‘Objects disappear and reappear suddenly, without explanation,’ added my father. ‘Trinkets that were the favorite of our little girl.’
“They recognized me in the audience but said nothing. Kept their cool. Times are hard in the Nation and the Missing girl exhibit appeared to be the most lucrative in the museum.
“Before we left I walked onto the set and opened the drawer to my old night-table and took out a pack of cherry life-savers I’d purchased in another life. I gave one to my husband and took one for myself. It tasted like virginity and dust. This is my body, I said as I popped it into his mouth, and this is my blood. We sipped the sweet grape drink the museum people offered as refreshment.”
The VOICE said: “So what’s your point, tatelleh? ‘You can’t go home again?’”
The Missing Girl faltered.
The VOICE said: “Orphan of the Nation: your parents, erstwhile consumers, were consumed. Cannibals leapt out of the television and ate them. Nnnnnnext!”
The Tree of Life
I said to the recorder: “The Ad Agency is a labyrinth shaped not unlike a brain. Hundreds upon hundreds of 6 by 8 foot partitions create this maze of cubicles in which artists, copywriters, and concept men work day and night to define the products of the Nation.
“Only one plant at the Ad Agency is the property of Topiary Techniques; the rest are cacti. The bucket grows heavy as Plantman trudges from cubicle to cubicle only to find gaunt ad-men laboring beside the squat, spiked dessert plants to whom he is irrelevant.
“Tacked to the partitions are advertisements dating back nearly a century. The clothes and artifacts change with the decades, but the youth and beauty of the models remain constant: sylphs and dandies posed like icons on a pharaoh’s tomb.
“Plantman recalls his earliest experiences with desire. He hums jingles long forgotten, craves the snack foods, toiletries and baubles of his youth. This is temptation.
“The plant he seeks is the Tree of Life for which, according to the memo in his pocket, there can be no replacement. Plantman is certain to find it at the center.”
The VOICE said: “Listen to my echo machine: Ha!”
“Ha,” spawned metallic generations. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hahahahahahahahahahah”
The VOICE was daring us to rise up from our mattresses and pull our plugs.
Wished I Were Dead
The secretary in the Real Estate office was alone and beautiful. She’d been smoking hashish, the office reeked of it.
“So tell me, Plantman. How are your fertilization techniques?”
I hesitated. I was afraid.
In the Fashion House a designer mourned the spathyfilum on her desk.
“She’s sick today. She’s suppurating. I didn’t know plant’s oozed like that. What does it mean?” she asked.
“Jeepers. I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’re paid to know. She’s slouching like a junkie. Make her stop!”
I wished I were dead.
The VOICE said: “You are sick and weary, you are filthy! Even the Night steals from your bed, she cuckolds you.”
Tomorrow, rather than attain the center, I will wear alien clothes. I will carry my bucket into elevators and ascend to space stations where ivy grows and workers toil parallel to clouds, and Plantman, as much as any advertisement for eternal being, is a vital illusion.
The VOICE said: “You are clay dolls animated by my fictions. I release you I abandon you bereft of my spirit you are vacuums. Inhale, exhale; gather yourselves and go. For Dawn comes even to the Sleepless.”
Radio. Radio. I heard the VOICE. It said the Green Man will rise from the ashes of this world, this Nation, this novelini, this cigar. Oh, Sleepless of the Nation!
Contact the VOICE after Midnight at firstname.lastname@example.org but be careful, you might reach Plantman…